Israel Inches Toward a Constitution with Knesset Approval of Rights Bill

Israel moved an important step closer towards a constitution Wednesday, when the Knesset, by large majority, approved a preliminary reading on a Basic Human Rights Bill.

The bill, when it eventually will become law, will be known as a Basic Law, meaning that in time it will be part of Israel’s constitution.

The vote was 53 to 19, with four abstentions, and followed a stormy debate in which the Knesset members from the religious parties found themselves almost isolated in their opposition to the bill.

The bill was presented by Shinui’s Amnon Rubinstein. But in doing so, he made it clear that the measure is, in fact, a precise duplication of a bill which the government itself was intending to place on the agenda, after lengthy deliberation in the Ministerial Legislation Committee.

Rubinstein explained that he was presenting the bill now as a private member’s measure, because he feared foot-dragging in the government for party-political reasons.

Recently, Likud promised Agudat Yisrael to block the bill, as a condition for Agudah remaining in the coalition. But Agudah last week withdrew from the government for a “test period” of two months.

Observers said the easy passage of the human rights bill Wednesday — with only two Likud members joining the Orthodox to oppose it — would inevitably further strain relations between Likud and the Orthodox parties.

CHARGES OF BREACH-OF-PROMISE

And, indeed, this was the tenor of a continuous cacophony of raucous heckling mounted by the Orthodox MKs through the debate. Agudah and Shas MKs hurled charges at Likud of breach-of-promise. Avraham Verdiger, speaking from the rostrum, said that Labor, in its 29 years of power, “would never have dared bring in such a dangerous bill.”

Justice Minister Dan Meridor, speaking for the government, said the bill tried to take account of Orthodox sensitivities. He said Likud left its members to vote according to their own consciences. Labor required all of its members to support the measure.

The bill opens with a declaration that “the rights of man in Israel are based on the recognition of the value of man, of the sanctity of life and of his being a free man, and they will be honored in the spirit of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Meridor and Rubinstein told the Knesset that they were prepared to include in this declarative preamble the verse in Genesis that “man is created in the image of God.”

The practical provisions assert equality regardless of religion, race, etc., and guarantee all the basic rights and freedoms, including movement, faith, expression, creativity, privacy, access to the courts, property, employment, assembly, organization, presumption of innocence and invalidity of retroactive criminal legislation.

Paragraph 19 provides: “Human rights will not be infringed, other than by a law that accords with a democratic state, and only in the required measure.”

The bill goes on to create a special Constitutional Court, comprising seven High Court justices, that would rule in cases where there is a prima facie conflict between other specific laws or regulations and this human rights law.

The Orthodox parties fear that this Court, working under the provision of Paragraph 19, could overturn existing or future pieces of religious legislation.

In Israel at present, as under the British system, there is no separate constitutional court-since there is not, as yet, a written constitution that requires periodic interpretation.

Agudah’s Avraham Verdiger argued that the proposed bill “opens the way” to the election of a non-Jewish president; the election of non-Orthodox rabbis to official rabbinic positions; and Sabbath desecration, even in Orthodox districts.

He and other MKs insisted that the law could be interpreted as contravening the Law of Return, since that law favors Jews over others.

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